Episode 1

Published on:

7th Oct 2020

Ep.001 - Blueprint for a Sustainable Future - Finn Woelm

Finn: Every single person who is trying to have a positive impact on the planet has contributed to this and this contributing to this. And it is due to the social entrepreneurs and the people working in nonprofit organizations, people like you, um, policy makers that have been able to make this progress.

Clement: This is the story about the entire world coming together to decide on 17 goals, a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. The sustainable development goals or, "SDGs," are constantly monitored to make sure we continue to stay on track at the local, national, and global levels.

 One of the entities that monitor all this data, keeping tabs on all of us. Is the sustainable development solutions network. And one of the data scientists working there is Finn Woelm.

Finn: The consequence from this is not that progress is inevitable and we should [00:01:00] kind of lay back and just watch. But the conclusion from this should really be progress is possible.

So, we should absolutely do everything we can to work towards making this world even better. And working towards a world where there's no more extreme poverty.

Laura: Prior to joining the world of data science behind the sustainable development goals, Finn co-founded a startup of his own and worked with a number of organizations in the impact space, including the international panel on social progress.

As for his current mission. Finn's all about statistical analysis and data visualization at the sustainable development solutions network.

Clement: So, what does someone like Finn think about entrepreneurship? And what does he really think about what it will take to reach these global goals by 2030? This [00:02:00] episode brings you the inside scoop.

You’re listening to The Spaceship Podcast where we’ll be speaking to entrepreneurs and global thought leaders to highlight the theories and exercises we cover in The Spaceship Master Class. If you are set on solving some the world’s biggest problems, check out thespaceship.org

Now let’s give the mic to our guest.  

Laura: Alright. Hey, Finn! Welcome to the show.

Finn:  Hi, Laura. Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

Laura: It's so good to have you. This is really fun because Finn is a friend of mine and he has been working with the sustainable development solutions network. So he's a data guy. He is avid in research, statistics, data visualization, and all in and around the sustainable development goals, the SDGs, which I just find super, super cool. So really wanted to have you on the show and introduce you to my co founder came off.

Clement: Hey Finn. Nice to have you on the show. 

Finn: Thank you. It's great to be here.

Laura:  I figured, um, I probably will do a worse job at introducing exactly what it [00:03:00] is that you do with the sustainable development solutions network.

So I figured we'd start off with you, maybe just telling us a bit more about what that's all about.

Finn:  Sure. So the sustainable development solutions network or short "SDSN". Is a think tank that was founded in 2012, under the guardianship of the United Nations to mobilize scientific knowledge for sustainable development and in particular for sustainable development goals for the agenda 2030 and the Paris climate agreement.

And I'm part of a team called the SDG index, which tracks and monitors progress towards achieving the SDGs for all 193 UN member States. So, what this means is that we look at a lot of different data and indicators and compile them into, in the end, a single metric to show for each [00:04:00] country, how far along they are to achieving the goals.

And importantly, also to highlight trends as well as gaps that still exist, so that countries can prioritize their efforts in the right places.

Laura: Wow. So you're, we're talking about a lot of big things here. You said agenda 2030. You said the SDGs, you're compiling information. I feel like there's so much to go on here and I have so many thoughts and so many questions for you, but actually I think it'd be really fun to start off with you and who you are as well, and what even brought you to this type of work.

Finn: Wow. Uh, that's a great question. A long journey with lots of different twists and turns led me to where I am today. And I think the journey is also not over yet. A big, big experience, a foundational experience for me was in my college years where I went to a university that was really focused on social entrepreneurship.

[00:05:00] And, um, was for young people who wanted to make a difference in the world. And it brought together people from all different corners of the world who are working on initiatives, projects, startups to have a positive difference in the world. And it was there that I was exposed really to, to a lot of the global challenges that we're facing, but also to a lot of the amazing work that is being done to, to change things for the better.

And so when I learned about the sustainable development goals, which are 17 objectives, that all countries in the world set for themselves and for the world in 2015. Goals like ending extreme poverty goals, like gender equality goals, fighting climate change, really ambitious agenda. I got very excited.

Because these goals really are, are a historic [00:06:00] milestone in the history of our human species. I think never before have we had, globally, a vision that all countries have agreed to and that all countries are pursuing for what we want the world to look like.

Clement: It's true. That's really exciting to finally see one global vision, agreed and pursued by all countries. When it comes to you, Finn, what drives you in life? What motivates you in the morning, what's your North Star?

Finn: Hmm. I see, I see. I have to say for me, it's really, it's really the agenda as a whole. That is super, incredibly inspiring. And that gets me excited and out of bed in the morning, I cannot emphasize this enough. It's really a tremendous milestone for all countries to come together and say, look, we all have maybe kind of different, slightly different values or different priorities, but still we are able to, you agree on [00:07:00] these 17 goals and these 169 sub-targets for what we want the world to look like. And that's incredible. I mean, if you look at the history of humankind over time, you know, all the Wars that we fought and so on. Just the fact that we have this common vision for the future that all these countries have agreed to, and that this vision was crafted in collaboration with lots of different stakeholders, organization, people from business and so on. It's it's super exciting.

Laura: Yeah. That's that's true. I actually can't remember a time where we were so focused altogether on a specific target or at least a vision for what the future could look like.

You know, I do remember we, we, we, weren't going to talk about this specifically, but just what you're saying and how you're saying it is bringing it to mind before the sustainable development goals were created. There were the millennium development goals. If I'm not wrong. If I do remember that-

Finn: That's correct.

Laura: I remember being in high school [00:08:00] and reading up on the millennial development goals. How are they different or are they different?

That is a great question. Yeah, you're very right. You remember that very much correctly. Before the SDGs, we had the MDGs, the millennium development goals, which were set in 2000 and a guided sort of global development from 2000 to 2015.

So until the SDGs were adopted, um, but they are very much different for the MDGs. They were really focused on, sort of, the poorer countries or the poorest countries and it wasn't the global agenda. They were actually, there was not much to do so to say for the Western world. And this is very different in the SDGs that state very clearly say that we all have work to do, right.

So it's not just some countries that have work to do. The quote, unquote, more developed countries actually do have a lot of work to do. One, of course, in the environmental dimension, because that is where countries like Germany, where I'm [00:09:00] from, really, uh, are causing a lot of problems, but also in making sure that Germany's actions, Germany's behavior, our consumption in Germany does not have negative impacts and does not prevent other countries from making progress on the SDGs.

Hmm. That's so interesting.

Finn: Yeah, it is. It is really fascinating.

Clement:  So do you see the SDGs changing in the near future or will they change only after we reach them?

Finn: The SDGs, for now, are, as they were in 2015, there are some, some aspects that we're still figuring out.

There are some targets where we're still figuring out how to measure them, right? So we have to 17 SDGs they're sort of the overarching framework, if you will. And then we have lots of different targets underneath each of these SDGs that get a lot more specific, right. Rather than just say, "Quality education," which is [00:10:00] kind of broad, the targets will, be a lot more concrete. What that actually means and what the actual targets are. Um, and so for significant number of those targets, we're still figuring out actually how to measure them, which is something that is very relevant to my work. Since we're really focused on data in the SDG index team.

So in that sense, there is some work that's still happening on the SDGs, but the overall framework is stable and has stayed the same since 2015. One big question of course, is what what's going to happen now with COVID, uh, the coronavirus pandemic, which is having severe negative impacts on a lot of the progress that has been happening over the last decades.

Right? So in terms of extreme poverty, It is having really severe negative impacts. And then of course, at some point it will be the question what happens after 2030, because the SDGs didn't mention this yet, but they were set in [00:11:00] 2015. And again, there were set with a 15 year timeframe in mind. So the idea was to achieve the goals by 2030, which has always been very ambitious.

And who knows if we will achieve the goals. But even if by some great stroke of luck, we are able to achieve them by 2030, which it doesn't look like right now. But if we're able to achieve them, even then there will be more work to be done, right? Like if we had extreme poverty, there are still many other forms of poverty, like relative poverty, for example, extreme poverty only, only covers people living on less than $1.90 a day.

So there will still be lots of other work to be done even after the SDGs are achieved.

Laura: Yeah. So we can't, we can't necessarily think of the SDGs as, you know, the route to paradise or the route to, you know, this, this perfect ecosystem and society either. It's kind of the bare minimum we need to do. Would you consider it maybe like the bare minimum we need to do to, to survive [00:12:00] and to thrive on this planet?

Finn: Oh, that's a great, great question too.


Laura: or maybe it's just an opinion, but

Finn: yeah, it does. It does get a little personal opinions. Maybe it's also a good moment to just say that this is where perhaps other people in the organization might have different points of view. And these are very much my opinions based on the work that I've done in the organization, but also also elsewhere.

Are they the bare minimum for us to survive? I mean, especially I think on the climate dimension, they are the bare minimum. This is something that I'm personally really worried about is, right, we have the coronavirus pandemic right now and it's really bad, but this is nothing compared to the climate crisis that is awaiting us if we continue business as usual

Clement: So all countries came together to define those SDGs... but, are they all equally involved or dedicated to follow them?

Finn: The short answer is [00:13:00] no countries are not equally dedicated to making progress on the SDGs. They did all sign them. All 193 UN member States signed onto them and co-developed them, but we are seeing very large differences in how serious they are being taken. I mean, I don't know if we want to go there, but, uh, especially in the United States, there's very little that is happening at the national level.

Right. So from the national government, we're seeing very little mention of the SDGs or work on the SDGs. We see much more on, on local levels. Certain organizations are more like a bottom up movement. And then we have other countries where the SDGs are really, really framing, the country's development and country strategy.

We had a webinar with groups from Indonesia recently. And there the SDGs are really part of the mainstream [00:14:00] conversation. People know about them. And they are sort of the guiding framework for the government.

Laura: Would you, would you say that the SDGs are really a language like they're... you mentioned them as a framework, do you feel like they're... the biggest pro to having the SDGs is for us to all be able to talk universally about these types of issues?

Finn: Yeah, I think that is, that is a really powerful aspect of the SDGs, just, um, that it's bringing together thousands of organizations and businesses and people and, and national and state level and local governments all under the same vision and same language pushing towards the same goal and speaking the same language.

Laura: So you mentioned, you know, when you talked about your first experience in college, going to a place where this was a, this was a main theme, this was a really interesting, or at least this [00:15:00] was something that was really talked about. Um, you mentioned that entrepreneurship was also part of that equation.

How do you see the connection between, I mean, everything that you're talking about is super interesting, but as somebody who's not in policy, I, you know, I'm not related to government in any way. How do I connect to the SDGs as an entrepreneur? Or how do we connect to them?

Finn:  Yeah, that is a fantastic question.

And that's something that has been a little bit of a challenge, I think, and that fortunately is, is being recognized and there are great organizations working on that, but when the SDGs were adopted, It was really, it was really with policymakers in mind and with countries in mind. Right? So the goals are, are really targeted towards countries.

If you are running a business and you look at all of the targets, they don't necessarily tell you what you should be doing as a business or how you can even go about [00:16:00] tracking and measuring your impact on those targets. So, so that there are, there are some groups that are, that are really working on that. UN global compact is, is one name that comes to mind, which is working with lots of businesses and translating the SDGs for business.

And what also comes to mind is, um, benefit corporation and organization. That is really about, really about businesses that want to have a positive impact. And they have developed something called the SDG action manager, which helps businesses do a baseline assessment of their impact on the SDGs, and then helps businesses track and identify where they're having positive and importantly, also negative impacts so that businesses can, can make sure they are making a positive contribution.

 And also. Make sure they're not kind of doing more harm than good.

Clement: Okay. And are you [00:17:00] saying that any businesses should be concerned with the SDGs or not? And if yes, um, how do those who have many more negative impact than a positive impact, how do they relate to the SDGs and how do they use those as a framework or language when it's not really their language?

Finn: Yeah, well, yeah, my personal belief is that all businesses should be concerned with the SDGs. I mean, at the very least business owners should be aware of, of the SDGs, because this is really our vision. You know, it's really prescribing what government should be doing, but the vision, and this is important, was not created just by policy makers. It was a really collaborative co-creative process between people from government, but also civil society, people from business and the general public, right? So division [00:18:00] is really broader than just a vision for policymakers. It's really a vision for where we all want to live as humankind and for our planet.

So since business is operating in our world as well, it's important to be aware of that vision, because that is where sometimes more slowly, sometimes more rapidly, but this is where we're headed in the long run. So, so for that reason alone, it's important to be aware of them. And then, I mean, businesses have a really important opportunity to promote the SDGs and, and, and make progress towards them. Just because I mean, businesses touch so many aspects of our lives and sometimes governments aren't making enough progress and it can be really slow to make progress at the government level. Decision making can be really slow. Businesses, have the opportunity to kind of trail blaze and lead the way!

Laura: I love that because that is, to [00:19:00] me, why I even started in the entrepreneurship space or, you know, why The Spaceship even came about was because there is this frustration in creating change when there's so much red tape and there's so much bureaucracy that you have to navigate, but. Businesses and especially startups have this opportunity right in front of them to be able to do really cool stuff to solve these really big problems.

So, yeah, I definitely agree with you on that front, but. A question I do have is, you know, at what point do you feel like it's important to start integrating these SDGs or start measuring yourself as a small business in terms of the progress you're making towards them? Do you feel like that's something that should come up right at the beginning, right when someone's, you know, starting their business? Or do you feel like this is something that you should almost use as a guiding light, but not necessarily benchmark yourself right at the get go. What's your opinion on that?

Finn:  That is [00:20:00] a, that's an excellent question. And you're asking an interesting person to answer it just because on a day to day basis, yeah, I don't work so much on business, but really more on the data monitoring, um, more aimed towards government.

Laura: That's true, I'm probably not asking the right person.

Finn:  I mean, yeah. Just, uh, make sure you also ask somebody else and don't just take my personal opinion as the answer, which I'm sure you're doing anyway.

 Just from my limited experience of entrepreneurship and, yeah, that journey, my two cents would be to not waste too much time going too deeply into, over analyzing too...

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